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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Between Merrill and Me

“Tea tempers the spirits and harmonises the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought, lightens the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.”

—  Lu Yu, Classic of Tea: Origins and Rituals.


I remember my first cup, it was with Nana. She had always made the best tea and I had always just attributed it to the milk; some high-grade New Zealand dairy perhaps. However, I was hesitant to accept this seemingly obvious answer. Going through it in my mind, a perfect cup of tea would consist of four elements. It couldn’t have been the sugar, or more mundanely even some type of specialist hot water. The last mentioned component here I realised, being the most important, the tea bag itself. I rustled through Nana’s pantry in search of the answer — seamlessly and unknown to me, he emerged. He was bespectacled, with the slightest of simpers. We acquainted for the first time. It was not Merrill in the flesh, but a picture of him in bleached white linen on a laminated box. A proud Ceylonese and a purveyor of tea, he happened to be “ethical” too. I was hooked.

Since then, Merrill J Fernando has seen a steady rise to fame. His TV commercials have granted him great success, his infamous “do try it” catchphrase I imagine being the common conversation in the office pantry, or better still a topic of bother for our Queen, her majesty, Elizabeth. I became an avid supporter of Merrill and his brand Dilmah. Learning more about him and his sons, Dilhan and Malik, brought me closer to them. Merrill was a businessman on a mission. At this stage in the early 2000s we hadn’t yet reached the fulcrum of celebrity CEOs or greenwashing, but I sensed Merrill was not like the rest of them. Merrill was saying something that spoke to me on the inside, and I owed it to myself figure out what it was.

Dilmah is branded on three main pillars. The first, “single-origin tea”, emphasises the non-mixing of tea leaves, which is common practice among other generic brands. Everything has to originate from the same source; in this case, Sri Lanka. To me this meant authenticity. Secondly, Merrill rejected “fair trade” labelling and instead created his own “ethical tea” label. His reasoning was long, but simply put, he wanted more wealth for his workers than “fair trade” would allow. To me, this meant sincerity and a big heart. Lastly, Merrill is a Sri Lankan businessman, who sells Sri Lankan tea around the world. This, from a historical perspective, is an aberration, with almost every large generic tea brand existing as a perpetual legacy of the horrors of colonial exploitation. To me, this meant that Merrill’s brand Dilmah exists as a “post-colonial tea” — the good native in charge and beating his masters at their tea game. Merrill was nothing short of a renegade.

Growing up with Merrill’s figure looming large from the kitchen pantry, it felt like I had found my hero, someone who espoused all the values I admired and clung to, even better that I was the only one to know this, a secret between us. As I got older still, my grip on Merrill or his grip on me began to wane. I have come to realise that perhaps our one-sided relationship was really just about me, and that all I was looking for was to project the values I cared about and to be able to fit them into a warm and humble vessel.


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